David Sylvian: Questions prepared by Dr. Darren J. N. Middleton, July 8, 2003
(published on davidsylvian.com)
1: I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you, Mr. Sylvian, for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer several questions about religion, especially your delight in Hinduism. I wonder if I might set the scene, as it were, by asking you to look back over your life thus far and then outline the contours of your spiritual journey to date?
I don’t think all of the elements that constitute a spiritual journey are necessarily obvious. Childhood influences must play a major part in ones development but how to pinpoint them? There’s the issue of environment, key moments of revelation, epiphany, disillusionment,
insight, intuition, habits, fears, All appear to play a part in a mind eager for clarification, inspiration, or simply confirmation, going some way towards justifying the intuited awareness of another reality that isn’t being owned up to or catered for in the immediate environment or even in the world at large outside of organized religion. I’ve always carried with me a faith of sorts born out of all the above influences and more. This faith, unshakable as it was, wasn’t really questioned in any depth until I’d made it through my teenage years. I then questioned every aspect of what constituted my faith. This was a period of upheaval that I embraced with something akin to relish. A casting out, doing away with any aspect of my life that didn’t bear up to close scrutiny. This search led me to look into Gurdjieff’s teachings, Sufism, Gnostic Christianity, Buddhism etc etc. At some point or another all of the above held me captivated for a period of time. My faith was restored to me stronger than ever before without the basis of a given set of parameters, without dogma. I was free. I felt free to explore whichever avenue of interest cast its spell and, more importantly, produced results. For me Buddhism held the most persuasive deck of cards. This was the source of knowledge that informed my practice for a number of years without the benefit of a personal teacher. This was ultimately to prove problematic as the practice itself became quite dry and
uninspired. At that point I actively searched for a teacher. Surprisingly, this search led me to series of teachers out of India whose background was Hindu based. Although I was never told to redirect the focus of my practice I slowly began to glean the significance, decode the meanings behind the technicolor images of Hindu gods and goddeses, some astoundingly gory in their representations, and was drawn into this enticing world, fascinated by the practices, the devotional aspect of the worship, and the, to my mind, indisputable wisdom of the Vedas.
2: Moving right along: I want to focus on “Forbidden Colours” for a moment. This is one of your early solo recordings, of course, and here you craft and deliver a lyric with multiple Christian allusions. I also note your impressive use of an envelope structure that begins with a plea for belief and ends with the beginnings of belief. Generally speaking, what were your thoughts about Christianity as you approached the writing and recording of this song? Do any of these thoughts remain with you today? If so, what are they? If not, why not?
The song was written during the period I just described where faith itself was under scrutiny. Having been brought up in Christian based schools where classes such as ‘scripture’, in which the bible was read and studied, were mandatory, my belief system naturally had a Christian bias or cosmology. As the subject of Christianity itself was under scrutiny my writing pursued this enquiry also. The lyric deals with the loss of faith, doubt, suffering, and divine love. Although I’ve performed the song live in recent years I’ve had increasing trouble connecting with the piece on a profound level. I believe this is attributable to that fact that a) the Christian symbolism of the piece which no longer holds any real significance for me and b) the issues that arise in my practice are no longer to do with a lack of faith. The notion of a distance from the divine “a lifetime away from you” doesn’t hold true for me at all as I know that the divine is available to us in the here and now. It isn’t something attained at the time of death etc.
3: In retrospect, what, if anything, is the “new religion” alluded to in “Pulling Punches,” featured on your first solo vocal album, Brilliant Trees? A related question: What definition and/or meaning would you attach to the word “religion”?
‘New religion’ would be a reference to the hybrids that surfaced with advent of the new age movement. Beliefs systems that had gone through
something of a filtering process removing all the fat and therefore any potential benefit. A religion that by default pulled its punches.
Religion: a set of beliefs, practices, and disciplines based on a defined set of human and spiritual values, informed by the wisdom of its literature as recorded by its prophets.
4: References to “age of reason,” “nausea,” and “iron in my soul” in some of the songs that appear on Brilliant Trees invite comparison to Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote novels with similar titles. Is there anything in this comparison? If so, do you think Sartre’s views on religion are ultimately positive or negative?
My memory of the Sartre books I have read is sketchy at best. I believe the reason for this is that I was ultimately unimpressed by Satre’s philosophizing. However, insightfulness into the human condition as revealed by contemporary philosophers and writers is relevant and beneficial when diagnosing the inherent problems therein. There is a practice in Tibetan Buddhism based on debate. The basics of the practice are under attack from the practitioners. This is because a system of belief must hold up under severe scrutiny. It must also produce results. Insightfulness into human nature, and the critical dissention of its beliefs are, I believe, signs of a healthy society.
5: As you know, your song “Weathered Wall” alludes to Jerusalem’s Western (sometimes: wailing) Wall. Have you ever visited the Holy City? If so, what were your impressions? Also, the protagonist in “Weathered Wall” sings: “Grieving for the loss of heaven/Weeping for the loss of heaven.” The same could be said of the protagonist in your song “Brilliant Trees”: “A reason to believe/divorces itself from me.” Do such lines hint at a loss of faith on your part, perhaps even a deconversion from a previously held or assumed belief?
I have never visited Jerusalem. Again, the album ‘Brilliant trees’ was written in a period when my belief system, my faith, came under attack. I wanted to see what remained when all pillars of support were removed. The pieces you mention are explorations along those lines. The narrator of Brilliant trees ultimately finds redemption in human love which for him is linked to the divine.
6: A sense of peaceableness comes through in one of your unrecorded songs, “Nagarkot.” In fact, the title, unless I am mistaken, refers to a hilltop “beyond all doubt” and that, from here, your protagonist – you? – plans to proceed out on a “long and perilous journey.” Where or what is Nagarkot to you? Does it play any kind of role in your spiritual formation?
The poem was written in response to a trip to India and, more importantly, Nepal back in ’84. Seeds were sown that gave me a philosophical grounding of sorts and a renewed sense of spiritual wellbeing (Nagarkot).
7: Your second vocal album, Gone to Earth, hints at a kind of pantheism, or at least suggests that you are trying to integrate the
sacred and material world, lyrically speaking. Is this a fair observation?
Fair enough. It is relatively difficult to write about matters of a spiritual nature in popular music. There are many obvious pitfalls. I attempted to focus on love, to merge the experiences of love, human and divine. This created an ambivalence that allowed for multiple readings. I was also somewhat enamored with the Gnostics at this point in time hence the embracing of some of its symbolism and iconography.
8: “Lilith,” another unrecorded song, seems replete with ancient and modern allusions and symbols: Lilith, of course, is a feisty woman in ancient Hebrew tradition; shamans are religious specialists; “the will to power” is the title of a book by Friedrich Nietzsche; and, finally, “the holy blood of saints and sheep” suggests martyrdom or else ritual offering. Religiously speaking, what were you trying to accomplish with this song?
The piece certainly appears symptomatic of the eclectic nature of the search for truth and meaning. I have little recollection of the lyric but I’d attempt a definition as ‘the power of divine energy embodied in human form. The realization of humanity’s potential and/or destiny’.
9: Secrets of the Beehive, your third vocal album, is also riddled with religious references. Many appear to evoke Christian symbols, ideas and themes. What does the Cross (“September”) mean to you, for example, and how do you understand talk of Kingdom (“The Boy with the Gun”)? Do you, personally, believe in a devil, for example, or do you deny the devil’s existence (“The Devil’s Own”)? What place has Jesus in your spiritual journey (“Mother and Child”)?
The Christian symbols no longer have any hold on me. I could speak in the past tense but I don’t feel my interpretations of these references differ from most. The point of using them in this context is a short hand of sorts. I don’t believe in a devil. I do believe in the force of evil, I believe in the force of love. Heaven and hell are here and now defined by psychological states. We know what hell feels like. We experience on occasion our decent into it. Most of us are fortunate enough to re-emerge. Likewise we also experience heaven by degrees and intensity.
10: Other recordings from the Secrets of the Beehive sessions, such as “Promise (the cult of Eurydice)” and “Ride,” speak of angels, chapels, rosaries and ravaged souls. After these songs, though, I sense a paradigm shift, for you appear to leave behind the subtle Christian references, and, as we now know, you change direction and begin evoking Shiva, a member of the Hindu pantheon, and Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, also a member of the Hindu pantheon. Spiritually speaking, did you experience a paradigm shift, or new “ashrama” (stage of life), after recording and promoting Secrets of the Beehive?
The period following on from Beehive was the hardest of my life. That decent into hell I spoke of. Great mental suffering. Yes, what felt like a monumental shift in awareness and development took place after 4 years of darkness (a darkness in which, although denied light, I never lost awareness of the light that underpins all existence). It was at this stage after numerous attempts had been made to understand the nature of the experience I was going through (including a beneficial period of psychoanalysis) that I found the first of my teachers, hence the shift in iconography which you correctly point out. Prior to this period though was the Rain Tree Crow project. This is an important document for me as it denotes the end of many intimate relationships including my association with Christianity : I touched his hand/it burned like coal/ I put paid to the devil/ and I saw the mountain fall/ Fall on”.
11: Dead Bees on a Cake, the long-awaited follow-up to Secrets of the Beehive, showcased Hindu and Buddhist themes. For many of your listeners, for example, it helped to put Thalheim on their cultural map. What does Thalheim mean to you? When did you make the pilgrimage there, and what did you discover?
I visited Thalheim for the first time in ’92 I believe it was. Oh god, what did it mean to me? It was the beginning of the journey in earnest. It was the rebirth of love. I can’t do better than that I’m afraid.
12: Since Hinduism is rooted in the life and culture of India, have you ever visited India? If so, what were your impressions, religiously speaking? In America, do you have any contact with the Indian diaspora?
I have visited India. I lived in a ashram during my second stay there. I think it’s fair to say I have only experienced India in the religious sense. India is after all a religious experience. I do have peripheral links to a part of the Indian community here in the States courtesy of my Guru but I wouldn’t want to over state that.
13: How important is mindfulness to you? What place does it have in your overall thinking about yourself?
It plays a role of great importance in my daily life although like most aspirants I fall short of my own expectations in this respect.
14: Do you believe there is no self? If so, are you comfortable with saying that people are collections of different perceptions in flux? If not, how would you define the idea of “no self,” and how does this idea shape your views on morality, for example, and moral responsibility, or life after death?
The ego is an illusion. Absolutely. Your second statement strikes me as too general even if true of the mind. It doesn’t help me to view life in this respect. Once we have created a basis, a foundation of love and compassion from which to work (heart over mind) we can view the world with greater understanding. Understanding something intellectually (mind) and experiencing it as truth (heart) are very different things. Once an experience of the truth has been attained then the last part of your question is answered intuitively. Not a question of moral or immoral but a question of truth. Truth as experienced not as intellectual conception. ‘No self’ is for me an act of surrender. This act is a form of meditation that is reaffirmed with every breath. I don’t think in terms of life after death. There is only life.
15: Some might say that “God” is an oversoiled word. How do you respond to this remark? And how, if at all, do you give meaning to this word?
It’s is difficult for us to embrace the formless, we who have taken form. For some it’s possible but for most of us a more suitable path might be one of devotion. The nurturing of love above and beyond oneself. Our focal point might me a mountain, a tree, or a more traditional embodiment of divinity such as Christ, Krishna, Buddha etc. However, in the final stages of realization even the concept or form of god must be relinquished. Ultimately there is only the formless consciousness. Divine love.
God is a loaded word. It is high time for a new vocabulary with which to maintain this dialogue on the spiritual.
16: Do women and men have all the potential they need in themselves to make sense of and live out their existence, or is the truth’s source in a higher, transcendent realm of meaning?
We exist in that higher realm of meaning but we remain ignorant of it. It is the goal of this journey to recognize and experience this truth. Ultimately, yes, we are That.Published on davidsylvian.com